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A Word for God

[A paper for my Intercultural Ministry class at Trinity, responding to this case study from Paul Hiebert.]

Ivan threw up his hands. “What is more important-” he asked his colleague, “that people think of God as ‘ultimate reality.’ or that they think of him as a’ person’ with whom they can communicate? Each of these, by itself, is a half-truth. Yet somehow it seems to me that we must choose between two words that carry these two meanings when we translate the word God into Telugu. What shall we do?”

After joining the Union Bible Society, Ivan had been asked to assist in a new translation of the Bible into Telugu. After settling down in the city of Hyderabad, he began to work with Yesudas, a high-caste convert who was also assigned to the project. Together the two had worked out many of the difficult problems they faced in translating the Bible into this South Indian language. But the most stubborn one remained unsolved. What word would they use for” God”? The choice they made was critical, for the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message. But although there are many Telugu terms for “god,” none conveyed the biblical meaning.

At first Ivan suggested,” Let’s use the term deva. That is the word the people use when they speak of ‘god’ in general terms.”

But Yesudas pointed out, “The devas are the highest form of personal beings, but they are not the ultimate reality. Like all things in the universe, they are maya, or passing phenomena. In the end, they, too, will be absorbed into the ultimate reality or Brahman. Moreover, they do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies. Finally, in Hinduism ‘all life is one.’ In other words, gods, humans, animals, and plants all have the same kind of life. Consequently, devas are not fundamentally different from humans. They are more powerful and live in the heavens. But they sin, and when they do, they are reborn as humans, or animals, or even ants.” Yesudas added. “Hindus claim that devas often come to earth as avatars to help humans in need, but because there is no difference between them it is like kings helping their commoners or saints helping their disciples. We, therefore, can use neither deva or avatar, for both destroy the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.'”

“If that is the case, why not use the term parameshwara?” Ivan suggested. “That means ‘highest of the deities.'”

Yesudas replied, “Yes, but this carries the same connotations as deva. In fact. all Telugu words for ‘god’ implicitly carry these Hindu beliefs! We have no word that means a supreme being who is the ultimate reality and the creator of the universe. Moreover, there is no concept of ‘creation ‘ as found in the Bible. The world itself is an illusion that does not really exist. ”

Ivan took another approach to the problem. “Why not use the concept of brahman itself? After all, brahman is ultimate reality-that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.”

Yesudas objected. “Brahman,” he said, “may be ultimate reality, but it is a force, not a person. True, some philosophers speak of sarguna brahman, of brahman in a personal form. But even he is only a manifestation of nirguna brahman, which is an insular, impersonal force. It makes no sense to say that nirguna brahman reveals itself to gods and humans, just as it makes no sense to say that a dreamer speaks as a real person in his dream. Similarly, humans have no way of knowing about or communicating with nirguna brahman. Moreover, nothing really exists outside of brahman. The heavens and earth are not creations that exist apart from it. They are projections of brahman in much the same way that a dream is a projection of the dreamer. So, in fact, we are all simply manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This destroys the biblical idea of a creator and a real but contingent creation.”

“What shall we do then?” asked Ivan. “Perhaps we could use the English word God or the Greek word Theos and introduce it into the translation. In time the word would become familiar, and it would not carry within it the implicit Hindu theology found in Telugu words.”

“How can we do that?” asked Yesudas. “When we preach in the villages, no one will understand those foreign words. We must use words the people understand . Isn’t that what the early church did when it took the Greek words for ‘god’ and gave them new Christian meanings?”

Ivan counterd, “Even if we do use deva or brahman and try to give them a Christian meaning, they will still be given Hindu meanings by the Hindus. And since the Hindus make up ninety percent of the population, how can a small Christian community maintain its own definitions of these words when the linguistic pressures for accepting the Hindu connotations are so great?”

“Well,” said Yesudas, “we’re back to square one. Should we use deva, or brahman, or ‘God’? We have to use one of these.”

The two discussed the matter for a long time, for they knew that their choice would influence both the evangelistic outreach of the church and also the extent to which the church would understand and be faithful to the biblical concept of God in the next fifty or hundred years. Finally they decided to . . .

###

How can we translate words from one culture and language to another? The answer is less straightforward than it may seem. There is a word in English for “hand,” so there must be a word in our destination language that means the same thing; just find that word, substitute it in, and repeat for each word in the sentence. But languages do not work this way, and words do not work this way. This is the problem faced by Ivan and Yesudas, translators working with Union Bible Society to produce a New Testament translation in Tegulu, a south Indian native language.

This “most stubborn problem” must be solved in some way, because “the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message.” But the problem is not solved easily. Ivan “threw up his hands… what shall we do?” he asks, exasperated, leading them to “discuss the matter for a long time.” In the Tegulu language, they have two words that come close to the English word God. Those words are Brahman and deva. The word Brahman communicates “ultimate reality — that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.” This sounds like the Christian concept of God. But, critically, it leaves out the personal aspect of God. Christians believe in a God who answers prayers, who has thoughts, who has a discrete will, who even experiences something analogous to emotions. The word deva communicates these aspects of “God” that Brahman does not. However, devas are “not ultimate reality, but passing phenomena… they “do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies.” They also “are not fundamentally different from humans” because “all life is one” in Hinduism, so they can be demoted to humans in reincarnation just as humans can be promoted to devas. Yesudas notes that this relationship “destroys the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.’” The words Brahman and Devas are reciprocal failures to convey the English word “God.”

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Photo by Varun Tandon on Unsplash

What deeper issue is at stake in this dilemma? The first is the location of meaning in a word. Do words have intrinsic meaning? Or do words take meaning only in their use in a sentence? If words have meaning in themselves, then our language has a sustained set of meanings that are combined according to these meanings. But if words do not have meaning in themselves, then any word can be anything. At this point, many are prone to employ a colorful argument: if words don’t mean “what they mean,” then all language is impossible and nothing means anything! But this slippery slope ignores that people employ words in consistent usages. Even if the meaning of a word is located outside the word, in its use in a clause, it does not for that reason become wholly meaningless and its communicative function wholly arbitrary.

For example, the word “bump” has changed because it has taken a metaphorical usage among social media users. Before, it meant something like “to knock something or someone aside by physical contact.” But now, it has gained an additional meaning that goes like, “to highlight something from the past that had faded from memory.” If meaning is located inside the word — whether the theory is (1) Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as a universal highest form, or (2) theological neo-Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as an unchanging concept in the mind of an unchanging God, or (3) Kantian linguistics, where we deduce that the word’s meaning exists as the result of transcending the noumenal realm through universally-accessible reason — whatever school of thought is taken, they cannot explain that words meanings change in time. Instead, they generate an ethical imperative: you must not change the meaning of words.

In contrast to these essentialist linguistic schemes, a nominalist scheme denies that words have meaning because this meaning cannot be justified ontologically. (In the Medieval period, this had more startling metaphysical implications than just linguistic implications). But I think that these nominalist understandings are also reducing the problem of language. By denying that language has any foundation at all, it escapes the trappings of the other responses, but it fails to provide any constructive answer of its own. Language doesn’t have meaning… so… what? What then? Rather than answer the problem incorrectly, it withholds an answer at all.

My (and my numerous Greek and Hebrew professors’) way of navigating through these extremes is to claim that lexical use is real, observable, and enduring within a cultural context. A good lexicographer will try to catalogue all of these uses, and that’s… that. Their work is done. There is no hunt for an objective meaning to the word, as that is unnecessary, and there is flexibility allowed for change in meaning of a word over time, as that is necessary. (It does take much more work than offering a single definition).

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Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

How does this perspective bear fruit in the dilemma that Ivan and Yesudas face? They do not need to concern themselves with finding the correct translation because the proper focus is to find the correct lexical use. Thankfully, the Bible contains many sentences in which the lexical use of “God” implies an attribute of God in context. Consider God’s appearance to Moses:

Exodus 3:13 Moses said to ____, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The ____ of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 ____ said to him, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

In this example, the reader receives new contextual information about God: the passage can imply many of the same things that the Tegulu term Brahman implies. And yet, because God is speaking, it implies some of the characteristics of deva. Consider another example, from James:

James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the ______ of the Heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Here the translators must render a Tegulu word for the English word “Father,” which faces the same complications as God because the target culture may interpret “Father” as a biological and material figure. However, when reading this word according to its use in the sentence, the reader gathers that the “Father” does not change (the Brahman tendency) and yet shows his personal agency by giving gifts and by “choosing to give us birth” (the Deva tendency). These examples demonstrate that the lexical use of a word defines its meaning for the reader, even if the word itself does not communicate anything (and even is replaced with a blank).

This works for the simple reason that “God” is always used in some lexical way. There is no sentence with the word “God” and no other words around it. Sentences require an actor and action, and from these we can always learn something about God. What do the Biblical writers predicate of God? We can learn much from this. Similarly, no preacher to the Tegulu speaking population will ever use the word “God” devoid of some context in their preaching. If the Jewish concept of God is basically opposed to the Hindu conception of God, then we should not expect any word to correctly translate the English “God” into Tegulu. In fact, the Jewish concept of God functions as a polemic against exactly the type of conception of God that the Tegulu speakers believe in, such that without the preacher also polemicizing against that conception of God, the audience will not understand the Jewish idea. Rather than fixing our attention on translating the English word God into a Tegulu equivalent that accurately codes our beliefs about God, the translators must popularize verses like Exodus 3:14 and James 1:17, to mention only two. By popularizing these sentences, the lexical use of God as both personal and transcendent will begin to take hold in the minds of the Tegulu speaking people.

There are additional ways to popularize this lexical use. I suggested an example in my discussion board post where we learn the poetic or literary forms that the Tegulu use (they may use in-rhyme more than end-rhyme, or find alliteration more exciting than meter, or something) and popularize the preferred lexical use in that literary form. My favorite example does this into rap from the Twitter account “Augustine of Hiphop.” He raps,

It follows from the faith,
Na it ain’t no eccentricity,
His whatness and his thatness,
they the same: sweet simplicity.

In addition to using the Biblical text to popularize the correct understanding of the meaning of “God,” missionaries like Ivan and Yesudas should consider these additional phrases.

All things considered, how should they translate the word “God”? Brahman and deva would take the same amount of corrective preaching to reach the lexical use of the English word “God.” But instead of trying to shift the lexical categories for these words, a better approach would use “God” as a calque – or better, use Adonai or Jehovah as loanword proper noun names for God, and the Tegulu speaking people will start fresh in understanding the transcendent, unchanging, personal, responsive God who we represent with this silly little English word “God.”

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